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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: Georgia State

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 Georgia State Panthers using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

These will be released in alphabetical order, so today we reach the halfway mark with Georgia State.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but did not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

Georgia State was the worst team in the Sun Belt last season and one of the worst in the FBS, winning just two games, only one in conference play, and finishing last in OAYP. Texas State was the only other team not to win at least two conference games, and the Bobcats did manage to split their non-conference slate 2-2. On the bright side, this team returns a ton of production, 73% on each side of the ball, which places them in the top 35 for both offense and defense, and the top 30 overall. However, returning good production is more important than simply returning production, such is the point of OAYP’s player scores and its contribution to the predictive nature of the formula. So, because of how bad last year was, it does not look too kindly on this year’s team just because there are a lot of familiar faces.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.77 (8)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.6 (8)
QB Ranking: 5
RB Ranking: 7
WR/TE Ranking: 9
OL Ranking: 4

The defense is another story, and we’ll get to that shortly, but there actually is reason to be optimistic about Georgia State’s offensive outlook in 2019.

Only half the league’s teams return an OAYP full qualifier at quarterback, and with Tyler Vitt not expected to start at Texas State, practically speaking, the Panthers have one of just four known quantities at the position. Ellington is still projected as the #5 QB out of the class because of Troy’s Kaleb Barker, who got hurt last year, but his number is actually pretty solid and points to about an average quarterback relative to the SBC, ACC, and SEC. There’s still a lot of work to do as a passer, but Ellington was fantastic in the red zone, posting an 85% adjusted completion percentage. And he was more of an effective rusher last year than the raw numbers would indicate. Excluding sacks, he averaged 5.62 yards per carry, which was second on the team behind sophomore running back Tucker Gregg, who only had 13 rush attempts, and gained at least five yards on 58.1% of his runs. New offensive coordinator Brad Glenn knows a thing or two about getting the most out of dual-threat quarterbacks, as his former pupil, Tyrie Adams, is about one play away from becoming Western Carolina’s all-time leader in total offense. Ellington could go out with a bang under Glenn’s guidance.

The run game as a whole was pretty explosive, too. It lacked efficiency, ranking eighth in the league in yards per attempt, but the Panthers tallied a run of 10+ yards on almost 18% of their attempts. Tra Barnett projects as a slightly below the mean ball carrier in 2019, while Seth Paige actually scored positively, albeit on a secondary qualifying sample size. The pair gained at least five yards on just 42.2% and 45.2% of their carries, respectively, but they do pose upper echelon threats at the second level, both tacking on an extra 6+ yards per opportunity. The foundation is there for a legitimately good run game, but there has to be more consistency.

The pass catching group lacks a true #1 now that Penny Hart, the greatest player in school history, is gone. Not one returnee that was targeted more than five times averaged even nine yards per target. That’s partially on Ellington, but not entirely. Cornelius McCoy is solid and efficient, but lacks the desired playmaking ability downfield. Devin Gentry, who did not meet the full qualifying threshold, does however boast some of the explosiveness that McCoy lacks. Redshirt freshman Sam Pinckney, though, could be the breakout star of this group, if there is one. Granted, on too small a sample size to draw real meaningful conclusions from, Pinckney reeled in three of his five targets for 27.3 yards per reception, 16.4 yards per target, a higher marginal efficiency than McCoy and a higher marginal explosiveness rating than Gentry. Then again, a lot of that came from one 50-yard grab, so take it with a grain of salt. There is good depth here, too, with Tamir Jones offering some big play ability and Christian Owens giving the offense a little bit of the best of both worlds.

The biggest reason to be excited about Georgia State, though, is the left side of the offensive line. As a whole, the unit was not great last year, but it was real studs and duds situation. Hunter Atkinson and Shamarious Gilmore were two of the best in the conference at their positions. Curiously, those two are the lone returning starters on the line. Atkinson earned third team All-Sun Belt honors for his efforts, while Gilmore allowed just seven pressures on more snaps than all but one other guard in the league. Even though there will be three new starters on Georgia State’s 2019 offensive line, it’s safe to expect this group to be much improved, if for no other reason than these two.

Brad Glenn has his work cut out for him, but he’ll have a useful skill set to mold in Dan Ellington, a pair of explosive backs, a deep receiving corps, and what could be one of the better offensive lines in the Sun Belt at his disposal. They’ll probably need to continue to lean on the run game, maybe even more than they did under Travis Trickett, but if that group can be more efficient, this is not an offense to be overlooked.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: -2.12 (10)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: -1.95 (10)
EDGE Ranking: 10
DL Ranking: 9
LB Ranking: 10
CB Ranking: 10
S Ranking: 10

*Sighs* As noted above, Georgia State ranks last, per OAYP, in every defensive position group in the Sun Belt except for one… they’re second to last on the defensive line.

In fairness, this was one of the youngest defenses around. That being said, the only reason for optimism is experience, which sort of spits in the face of OAYP. In my opinion, the coolest part about the metric is that it doesn’t just look at returning production, but the efficiency and value of said returning production. Losing good players doesn’t hurt that much when good players are coming up behind them, and returning, uh, less than effective players isn’t necessarily a good thing. Of course, players do get better, sometimes by a lot. However, while a young player scoring in the 0 to -0.5, even close to -1 range is fine, guys below -1 or even -2 in marginal OAYP points to more significant problems. This defense has just one player for which that can not be said.

That one player is pretty awesome, though. Terry Thomas, classified as an edge defender by PFF, graded out as the best returnee in the conference per their system. Denoted as a defensive lineman by OAYP, the formula didn’t look quite as kindly on him, but placed him firmly on the positive side of things, just shy of second tier status, and he’s probably at least a little underrated by the metric because of the play around him which made him the focal point of pretty much every opposing gameplan. Plus, with him leading the way, the run defense was actually not as bad as it seemed, having ranked in the national top 50 in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed. The reason they ranked last in the Sun Belt in yards per carry allowed is that anytime an opposing ball carrier did escape the first line of defense, they usually went on to escape the rest of the lines of defense, too.

We could rehash the problems with pass defense -- no pass rush, poor coverage, struggled to force turnovers, etc. -- but that feels like piling on.

The point is, this looks like a one man show. Some offenses can get away with that, if that one man is truly special, but that never works on defense. Unless there is vast improvement, pretty much across the board, both individually and within the unit’s cohesion, this will again be the worst defense in the Sun Belt.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Offensive Line
2. Quarterback
3. Running Backs
4. Pass Catchers
5. Defensive Line
6. Linebackers
7. Safeties
8. Cornerbacks
9. Edge Defenders

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

15. OG Shamarious Gilmore
23. OT Hunter Atkinson
66. DL Terry Thomas
76. WR Cornelius McCoy
99. P Brandon Wright

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

I mean, this is pretty self explanatory. For all the promise on offense, OAYP has no faith in Georgia State’s defense and that is clearly displayed in its projected margins of victory, er, defeat. The conference opener against Texas State feels like it should be a winnable game, but home field advantage for the Bobcats pushes that game comfortably into the double digits. Plus, OAYP would have that as a ten point line even on a neutral site. So, with that in mind, if the Panthers are going to improve on their one conference win a year ago, they’ll need to pull it out at Coastal Carolina and home against South Alabama. Now, Coastal Carolina doesn’t have much of a historical home field advantage, which can be viewed as both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it means playing in Conway shouldn’t have an outsized impact on the outcome. On the other hand, that means OAYP still views CCU as about five-ish points better than Georgia State on a neutral site. South Alabama is the biggest toss-up game. And, correspondingly, with not much home field advantage for the Panthers, either, that field goal line pretty much says what it means.

Brad Glenn’s offense could actually be a pretty darn fun group to watch in 2019, but the reality of the situation is that this team’s outlook rides on its defense. I’m personally a little more optimistic, given all that returning talent, than OAYP is. Plus, we’re not far removed from Nate Fuqua putting out a genuinely solid group during his 2017 debut. Even so, that unit has a long way to go to even reach serviceability, and with most of those guys coming back next season, it might not be a bad idea to keep the 2020 defensive potential in the back of your mind, if you’re a Panther fan, in case things don’t get much better.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP